Back when getting pregnant before marriage was considered a taboo that came with unthinkable consequences, a 19-year old girl fought all odds to save the child she was carrying. Julie Mannix was 3 months pregnant on November 22, 1963 when she was seated in the waiting room of the state hospital for the mentally disturbed.
Surrounded my family who would rather put her in a mental ward in the pretext of depression, Julie was faced with the most difficult choice of her life – either get an abortion and live a normal life, or have the baby and be confined within the hospital walls, shunned by her own family. Without a second thought, Julie chose the latter. Her choice definitely had consequences, but what also came of it was nothing short of a fairly tale.
Born to parents who sported a surprising mix of conventional and non-conventional values, Julie grew up in an eccentric household. Her father was a journalist and had traveled with a carnival sideshow as one of his first jobs. As a result, their Philadelphia home had a cheetah, a 15-foot python, a spider monkey, several ocelots, and a little fox cub, after which her father wrote,The Fox and the Hound.
Julie’s mother was a staunch Catholic, who would have never opted for abortion for her daughter under different circumstances. She was also a writer and an actress.
Following her mother’s footsteps, Julie enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York to study acting. As a part of her career, she did an apprenticeship in a theater at Westbury, Long Island. It was here that she met her child’s father, Frank Von Zerneck. Frank was 23 and already married, of which Julie learned much later, when she already pregnant with his child.
Because she refused to sign the documents that would legalize her abortion, Julie’s fate was sealed. Her stay in the mental ward was an experience filled with dread, paranoia and an intense desire to come up with a better life for her daughter. But deep within her, she was well aware of how the latter was just impossible.
On April 19, 1964, after six months of stay in the hospital, Julie gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby girl whom she named Aimee Veronica at Catholic Charities hospital near Philadelphia. Looking at her daughter from a distance, she saw parts of her family and herself in Aimee. Gathering courage and with a heavy heart, Julie signed the adoption papers and left.
Aimee soon started a new life as Kathleen Marie Wisler. She had parents who absolutely adored her. She also had a younger and an older brother. Surrounded by love, Kathy’s life was seemingly flawless. Except, that’s not how things remained for long.
Her mother died of breast cancer when she was six. Her father remarried and two more siblings from the new wife’s previous marriage came into the family. Her father’s new marriage was doomed from the beginning. There were financial crisis and things got worse from there. The couple divorced two years later.
But it was during her father’s second marriage that Kathy learned about her adoption. She felt devastated and uncertain about her true identity. But it wasn’t immediately that she went on a quest for her biological parents. In fact, she felt it was enough to observe and make conjectures about them by looking at her daughters, Amanda and Kathryn. After their birth, Kathy would notice their eye colors and their personalities and trace all of that to her birth parents.
Kathy’s neighbor’s son was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a genetic disorder. This got her thinking whether there were any diseases running in her birth family. With that thought in mind, and a wish to arm herself from any future surprises, Kathy inquired about her biological parents at the Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia. In an envelope, she received all their basic details. Although, there was nothing alarming in terms of genetic disorders, Kathy couldn’t help but think how her parents were getting by without her. She did not allow herself to ponder over it much, and left it at that. Meanwhile, her father also passed away. With both the parents who had adopted her gone, Kathy felt orphaned. But even that did not alter the fact that she did not want to know more about her biological parents.
Ten years went by. Kathy got busy with her family and there was a sense of calm and routine pervading her life. But one day, she happened to chance upon the envelope she had abandoned ten years ago. At that moment, secure in her present life, Kathy felt curious to know more about the mother that gave her birth. She promptly turned to Google.
She found out her actual grandfather was a writer and that he had a daughter named Julie. Her next search was Julie Mannix. She discovered that Julie Mannix was an actress and had married a television producer named Frank Von Zerneck (Zerneck had divorced his first wife while Julie was institutionalized. Frank and Julie got married in 1965). The internet search also told her that Julie and Frank were parents to two sons, Danielle and Frank Jr.
Despite her own premonitions and her husband’s entreaties of leaving the matter aside, Kathy wrote a letter to Frank and Julie. It read –
Dear Mr. & Mrs. von Zerneck:
How do I begin a letter like this? Well, I think I’ll simply just start with: I was born on April 19, 1964, in Philadelphia. Based on the documents Catholic Social Services provided me, I find it plausible that you may know some information concerning my birth family…. It is not my intention to interrupt their lives; I simply want to connect on any level they feel comfortable.
Please, at your convenience, let me know if you can assist me with additional information.
Two days after she posted it, Kathy received a phone call from the Julie. There were racing heartbeats and air laden with emotions on both the sides. After exchanging summaries of their lives, the two were convinced about their shared history. Kathy still cherishes the moment Julie declared, “I’m your mother,” on the other side of the line.
Kathy spoke with Frank as well, who reassured her that she was loved and missed every single day of their lives. In fact, they celebrated Kathy’s birthday on every 19th April. They had even inscribed that date on to their wedding rings.
They took things slowly at first. After eight months of exchanging pictures, phone calls and emails, Kathy decided to meet Julie and Frank in person. They met at the Ritz – Carlton Hotel for the first time. There, at the crowded lounge, Kathy hugged her mother and the moment was captured in all their hearts forever.
Even though Kathy sometimes feels pressured and guilty about having to keep up with two families, she agrees with Julie that their meeting was worth everything. After losing the parents who raised her, life gave Kathy a second chance at becoming a daughter. She now has parents who would call her for random things, are genuinely interested in knowing how she is doing in her life and are concerned about Kathy and her family. Their lives may have had moments that were depressing and devastating at times, but it certainly turned out to be a fairy-tale ending for all.